Derek Lowe is a medicinal chemist who has worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other diseases. He has been writing about drug discovery at In the Pipeline, where this post originally appeared, for more than ten years.
Slate recently published one of those assume-the-conclusions articles up on science and technology education in the U.S. It’s right there in the title: “America Needs More Scientists and Engineers.”
Now, I can generally agree that America (and the world) needs more science and engineering. I’d personally like to have researchers who could realize room-temperature superconductors, a commercially feasible way to turn carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into industrial products, and both economically viable fusion power and high-efficiency solar power beamed down from orbit—for starters. We most definitely need better technology and more scientific understanding to develop these things, since none of them (as far as we know) are at all impossible, and we sure don’t have any of them yet.
But to automatically assume that we need lots more scientists and engineers to do that is a tempting, but illogical, conclusion. And it’s one that my currently unemployed readers who are scientists and engineers probably don’t enjoy hearing about very much. I think that the initial fallacies are (1) lumping together all science education into a common substance, and (2) assuming that if you just put more of that into the hopper, more good stuff will come out the other end.
If I had to pick one line from the article that I disagree with the most, it would be this one:
America needs Thomas Edisons and Craig Venters, but it really needs a lot more good scientists, more competent scientists, even more mediocre scientists.
No. I hate to be the one to say it, but mediocre scientists are, in fact, in long supply. Access to them is not a rate-limiting step. (That’s the chemist’s way of saying it’s not the main bottleneck.) Not all the unemployed science and technology folks out there are mediocre—not by a long shot (I’ve seen the CVs that come in)—but a lot of the mediocre ones are finding themselves unemployed, and they’re searching an awful long time for new positions when that happens. Who, exactly, would be clamoring to hire a fresh horde of I-guess-they’ll-do science graduates? Is that what we really need to put things over the top, technologically—more foot soldiers?
But I agree with the first part of the quoted statement, although different names might have come to my mind. My emphasis would be on “How do we get the smartest and most motivated people to go into science again?” Or perhaps “How do we educate future discoverers to live up to their potential?” I want to make sure that we don’t miss the next John von Neumann or Claude Shannon, or that they don’t decide to go off to the hedge fund business instead. I want to be able to find the great people who come out of obscurity, the Barbara McClintocks and Francis Cricks, and give them the chance to do what they’re capable of. When someone seems to be born for a particular field, like the Nobel-winning R. B. Woodward seemed to be for synthetic organic chemistry, I want them to have every chance to find their calling.
But even below that household-name level, there’s a larger group of very intelligent, very inventive people who are mostly only known to those in their field. I have a list in my head right now for chemistry; so do you for the fields that you know best. These people we cannot have enough of, either—these are the ones who might be only a chance encounter or sudden thought away from a line of research that would lead to an uncontested Nobel Prize or billion-dollar industrial breakthrough.
To be fair, Slate may well get around to some of these thoughts; they’re going to be writing about science education all month. But I wish that they hadn’t gotten off on this particular foot. You’ve got to guard yourself against myths in this area. Here come a few of these myths, which feed the erroneous idea that we need more scientists and engineers:
1. Companies, in most cases, are not moving R&D operations overseas because they just can’t find anyone here to do the jobs. They’re doing that for the same reason so many other employers have sent jobs abroad: because it’s cheaper that way (or appears to be; the jury’s probably still out in many instances)—people in many other countries simply do their jobs for less money. And it’s often the ordinary grunt work that’s being outsourced, which makes the “we even need mediocre scientists” line especially wrong-headed.
2. We are not, as far as I can see, facing the constant and well-known “critical shortage of scientists and engineers.” There have been headlines with that phrase in them for decades, and I wish people would think about that before writing another one. Some fields may have shortages (and these vary over time), but that’s a different story entirely.
3. And that brings up another point, as mentioned above: while the earlier stages of science and math education are a common pathway, things then branch out, and how. Saying that there are so-many-thousand “science PhDs” is a pretty useless statistic, because by that point, they’re scattered into all sorts of fields. A semiconductor firm will not be hiring me, for example.
To sum up: our problems are not caused by a shortage of scientists and engineers, and they will not be fixed by cranking out a lot more mediocre ones. It’s harder than that—isn’t it always?
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